Venus: Possible evidence of life in the clouds?

Guest “The truth is out there” by David Middleton

Phosphine gas found in Venus’ atmosphere may be ‘a possible sign of life’
Astronomers detected signs of a smelly, toxic gas that microbes can make in the planet’s clouds

By Lisa Grossman


Venus’ clouds appear to contain a smelly, toxic gas that could be produced by bacteria, a new study suggests.

Chemical signs of the gas phosphine have been spotted in observations of the Venusian atmosphere, researchers report September 14 in Nature Astronomy. Examining the atmosphere in millimeter wavelengths of light showed that the planet’s clouds appear to contain up to 20 parts per billion of phosphine — enough that something must be actively producing it, the researchers say. 

If the discovery holds up, and if no other explanations for the gas are found, then the hellish planet next door could be the first to yield signs of extraterrestrial life — though those are very big ifs.

“We’re not saying it’s life,” says astronomer Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in Wales. “We’re saying it’s a possible sign of life.”


“Fifty kilometers above the surface of Venus, the conditions are what you would find if you walk out of your door right now,” at least in terms of atmospheric pressure and temperature, says planetary scientist Sanjay Limaye of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who was not involved in the new study. The chemistry is alien, but “that’s a hospitable environment for life.”

Previous work led by astrochemist Clara Sousa-Silva at MIT suggested that phosphine could be a promising biosignature, a chemical signature of life that can be detected in the atmospheres of other planets using Earth-based or space telescopes.

On Earth, phosphine is associated with microbes or industrial activity — although that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant. “It’s a horrific molecule. It’s terrifying,” Sousa-Silva says. 


Science News

The full paper (Greaves et al., 2020) is available. Here’s the abstract:


Measurements of trace gases in planetary atmospheres help us explore chemical conditions different to those on Earth. Our nearest neighbour, Venus, has cloud decks that are temperate but hyperacidic. Here we report the apparent presence of phosphine (PH3) gas in Venus’s atmosphere, where any phosphorus should be in oxidized forms. Single-line millimetre-waveband spectral detections (quality up to ~15σ) from the JCMT and ALMA telescopes have no other plausible identification. Atmospheric PH3 at ~20 ppb abundance is inferred. The presence of PH3 is unexplained after exhaustive study of steady-state chemistry and photochemical pathways, with no currently known abiotic production routes in Venus’s atmosphere, clouds, surface and subsurface, or from lightning, volcanic or meteoritic delivery. PH3 could originate from unknown photochemistry or geochemistry, or, by analogy with biological production of PH3 on Earth, from the presence of life. Other PH3 spectral features should be sought, while in situ cloud and surface sampling could examine sources of this gas.

Greaves et al., 2020

Evidence of biological processes in Venus’ atmosphere? Maybe. However, “unknown photochemistry or geochemistry” is probably more likely than “biological production” because we don’t even really know what the unknowns are. Evidence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in Titan’s atmosphere isn’t evidence of “incomplete burning of coal, oil and gas, garbage, or other organic substances like tobacco or charbroiled meat” on Titan

In what I think was a spoof, Tucker Carlson interviewed UFO “expert” Nick Pope abut this discovery:

I have no idea how Tucker maintained s straight face through that interview… I know I couldn’t have. Oh… don’t pay any attention to: “See David Middleton’s other Tweets”… There’s not much to see. I almost never use Twitter. It was the only way I could figure out how to share the video.


Greaves, J.S., Richards, A.M.S., Bains, W. et al. Phosphine gas in the cloud decks of Venus. Nat Astron (2020).

67 thoughts on “Venus: Possible evidence of life in the clouds?

  1. toxic gas. hellish planet. horrific molecule. terrifying.

    May I remind you…
    Women are from Venus.

    Men are from cold red lifeless Mars.
    Better red than dead. MAGA.

  2. Examining the atmosphere in millimeter wavelengths of light….

    Hmm… The light spectrum runs from ~700 nm to ~400 nm. Not sure what is implied by “millimeter wavelengths” in the press report, or “single-line millimetre-waveband” in the abstract.

    • Longer wavelengths are infrared ‘light’. If you get as long as centimeters, that’s microwave. You wouldn’t call it microwave ‘light’ though. In any event, they are all examples of electromagnetic radiation.

      The way they diagnosed the presence of phosphine is by looking at the wavelengths of ‘light’ that are emitted or absorbed by the Venetian atmosphere.

      Basically, the shorter the wavelength, the smaller the object. So, wavelengths in the visible spectrum are from electrons. Longer wavelengths are from whole molecules. For instance, the wavelength that matters for CO2 is 15 um.

        • There is an SO2 line at 1.121mm very close to the 1.123mm they were actively looking to find.

          They do discuss this but with all the data processing, polynomial fitting and “binning”, I think it is quite possible it is SO2 they are seeing, not “life on Venus”.

      • I was very disappointed by the video this group released where the woman from Cardiff U. kept talking about “radio light”. I guess she thought that is she said radio waves she her audience would be lost in the jargon. All their graphs were sociologists graphs with no axis labelling.

        She is also a proponent of saying processeeez, which is a very ignorant attempt to sound learned.

        I would have thought the claiming to have identified the presence of a molecule from a very small, poorly resolved dip at one wavelength was hardly conclusive detection of the gas, let alone further speculation of life.

        They go as far at to calculate the concentration as 20 ppb but with such poor resolution I don’t know how they know the amplitude of the trough. It all smacks of finding what you want to find and reading far much more into the observations than is justified.

        • … processeeez …

          It’s a kind of illiteracy and, as you say, it’s pretentious to the max. It sets off my bs meter every time.

          Never lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of published research findings are wrong.

          • Whence came “processees” rather than “processes”? Possibly from “crisises” vs. “crisees”, which is grammatical in Latin, if not English, but in any case not the least bit applicable to “process”. “Crisees” is grammatical in Latin, however affected in English. “Processees”, not so much. As in, not at all.

            Same goes for “penises” vs. “peneez”.

      • Phosgene absorption at 365- 373 nm (UV range) maybe a yellow color in visible light, and strong fluorescence emission peak appeared at 428 nm.
        Also phosgene can be produced by UV radiation in the presence of oxygen and chloroform. Chloroform can come from natural organic matter (indicating life) or from some unknown abiotic process on Venus.

    • That’s for visible light. By convention, UV and IR are often called “light”, while higher energy (shorter wavelength) electromagnetic radiation is”rays” and lower (longer wavelength) “waves”.

      In physics however, the term “light” can refer to EM radiation of any wavelength. Thus, gamma rays, X-rays, microwaves and radio waves are also light, like UV, visible and IR wavelengths. But all EM radiation propagates as waves.

  3. Like on all planets with an atmosphere, PV=nRT applies. As the altitude gets higher and the gas atmospheric pressure lower, so the temperature gets cooler. At altitude, the temperature would be vastly lower than on the surface with its 92-93 times the pressure of earth’s atmosphere at ground level.
    All the warmists need to do is go up in the atmosphere a bit and presto- warming problem gone. Alas, their heads tend to reside in the clouds and the presto-gone refers to their brains.

    • Ah yes, but with 1% CO2 concentration on Earth, it will boil. Oh wait! You mean the surface of Venus is hot because of pressure not CO2 concentration?

          • Two statements, two errors.

            The ideal gas law describes the relation between pressure, volume and temperatures, it does not tell anything about the temperature of a gas in any specific case.

            The first Venera probe launched in 1961

      • It’s so hot because it rotates so slowly. Same as almost atmosphere-free Mercury, but it cools off during its long night, so doesn’t get quite as hot as Venus.

        Its thick atmosphere, high winds aloft and possibly heat transfer through the lithosphere keep the dark side of Venus as hot as the lit side. A day there lasts 121.5 Earth days.

        Less than three percent of sunlight actually makes it directly to the surface, but another ~7% gets through the air by scattering.

    • …..aaarrghhh…..just trying to save us all from Ideal gas law misinterpretation….When your kitchen oven is at 450, do you conclude it is because of the pressure ? Or do you think it is because of the rate of energy input versus the rate of energy escape ?

      • Exactly. I can fill a gas cylinder to any pressure I like, and if let it sit, it will eventually achieve thermal equilibrium with the room it’s in. 10 psig, 100 psig, or 1,000 psig, it all gets to room temperature eventually. It’s when you do work on it, or have it do work adiabatically that you get temperature changes.

  4. Two hypotheses:
    1) there is life on that extremely hostile planet producing toxic stuff
    2) there is toxic stuff on a toxic planet produced by an as yet unknown process, because nobody looked for such before.

    Which of these is more likely? Then apply Occam’s Razor.

  5. If there is life there what are the chances it has come off the dozen or so satellites that have come from earth and gone through the Venusian atmosphere?

    • Interesting speculation but, as always with EU, lacking any tangible facts.

      Its interaction with the flow of electric charge in the Solar System can explain the effects discovered by astronomers on Uranus.

      Assertion? What “effects”?

      … those questions ought to confirm the Electric Universe model of the Solar System.

      Ought to ? Like reducing CO2 ought to end the sixth mass extinction we are living through, right here and now ?

      I’m quite interested in the E.U. hypothesis , I just wish they sounded less like astrologists.

      • The hypothesis, not that it merits that designation, has been repeatedly shown false. Indeed, it was hatched already falsified.

        Craters are caused by impacts, not electrical discharges. Gravity is real.

  6. Abstract: Phosphine (PH3) is a natural gaseous carrier of phosphorus in its biogeochemical cycles,
    has been found ubiquitously present in the environment. The origin of phosphine in various
    environmental sites is still under debated, although phosphine evolution used to be reported from
    microbial habitats. The tentative experiments show that phosphine gas could be produced by
    aqueous or acid corrosion from phosphorus–containing impurities in iron. The concentration of
    phosphine liberated by aqueous corrosion was of the same order of magnitude (ng/kg) as those
    detected in natural environment. Acid could accelerate corrosion and promote the production of
    phosphine. The quantity of phosphine liberated by 0.5 mol/L sulfuric acid corrosion was three
    magnitude orders (ug/kg) higher than that in aqueous corrosion, which may provide a convincing
    explanation for the significant occurrence of phosphine in strong acidic condition (landfill gas,
    anaerobic fermentation gas, etc). It was shown that phosphine emission in air as headspace gas
    was higher than in nitrogen gas under aqueous corrosion, while different headspace gas (air or
    nitrogen gas) showed little effect on phosphine liberation by acid corrosion. Phosphine produced
    by reduced type iron powder (analytical reagent) was lower than by technical iron filings. Iron
    filings after grinding could enhance the emission of phosphine. Under acid corrosion, an
    exponential positive correlation between the weight of iron filings(x, g) and phosphine production
    concentration (y, ng/m3) has been established (y=58.49lnx+343, R2=0.9561,n=18). A positive
    correlation between the concentrations of acid and phosphine production could also be observed.
    Results suggested that chemical corrosion of phosphorus-containing in iron filings could be
    considered as a source of phosphine emission in the environment. Further studies should examine
    the phosphorus species existing in iron and evaluate the chemical process responsible for the
    production of phosphine by iron corrosion.

    Geng, J., Zhang, R., & Wang, X. (2010). Chemical Origin of Phosphine in Nature. 2010 4th International Conference on Bioinformatics and Biomedical Engineering. doi:10.1109/icbbe.2010.5516429

    • Yes, I researched phosphine when the story broke, and found that paper as well. Looks to me like they are saying iron that contains phosphorus could release phosphine when it rusts. Iron, water, oxygen, phosphorus, and heat are not unusual to find in the universe.

    • I saw also that article and I was going to post it here 🙂
      It’s not cited in the “Venus fosfine” paper. Venus atmosphere has a huge amount of H2SO4. The planet’s surface is mainly basalt, which is an iron/magnesium rock. It’s very plausible that the conditions are set to have phosphine formation from an inorganic source and process.

    • Meteorites contain not just amino acids, the components of proteins, but sugars, nucleobases and phosphate groups, ie the components of RNA and DNA, and fatty acids, which, with phosphate, compose cell membranes. IOW, the building blocks of life arise naturally in outer space as well as on Earth.

  7. But, but, but, what about the Queen of the Venusians and her court of youthful, beautiful buxom, and surprisingly Earth-woman-like science advisors , all wearing very alluring gowns and bikinis and undergarments, kidnapping me from the Earth, transporting me to their evil but luxurious cloud palace, and there enslaving my somewhat over the hill Earth man’s body for their nefarious sexual experiments? When can I look forward to THAT news? And don’t tell me it’s too perilous. I can face a little peril, especially if it’s for the cause of science.

  8. “Single-line millimetre-waveband spectral detections (quality up to ~15σ) from the JCMT and ALMA telescopes have no other plausible identification.”


    “But the signature of phosphine — seen as a dip in the spectrum of light at about 1.12 millimeters — was still there. The gas absorbs light in that wavelength. Some other molecules also absorb light near that wavelength, but those either couldn’t explain the whole signal or seemed improbable, Greaves says. “One of those is a plastic,” she says. “I think a floating plastic factory is a less plausible explanation than just saying there’s phosphine.”

    So, plastic could do it too… it’s only “implausible” because they don’t consider natural hydrocarbon reactions in unusual environments, positing a “floating plastic factory” as a straw man arguement.

    • “One of those is a plastic,” another is So2
      Let’s ridicule the first one …

      Still, when Greaves and colleagues searched Venus’ skies for signs of phosphine, the researchers didn’t expect to actually find any. …. “That’s a complete surprise,” Greaves says.

      So they got funding and time on major world class telescopes looking for a very specific molecule for a specific reason ( hypothetical life indicator ) , convinced themselves it was not an almost identical SO2 spectral line and that “oh, we did not expect that “.

      They clearly have a huge bias and I don’t trust this result at all. They will have their 5min of fame.

  9. When does NASA launch? Al Gore wants to be the first to claim life after Bill Clinton’s failed attempt with mineral concretions.

  10. The real question they should be asking is “How would life have evolved there?”, not “Could a layer of the atmosphere support life”.

    Evolving a life form in a turbulent diffuse atmosphere where it would be continually scrubbed be acid rains just seems like a stretch. How would molecules that allow reproduction and evolution be formed? The life would have to be “plankton-like” drifting in a high layer of atmosphere, but without predators it should blanket the planet – not sure how a predator evolves without a mechanism for genetics. You should at least see “blooms” of the pseudo-plankton.

    Far more likely there are a lot of interesting chemical reactions going on in the high pressure and chemically complex atmosphere of Venus.

    I hate to say it, but I am thinking life is very rare in the Universe. Luckily there is a lot of Universe so it’s likely out there, but beyond our reach. Maybe that is a good thing – we could find pristine new life and infect it with liberals, utterly destroying it’s future.

    • I agree that life is improbable on Venus. The planet has probably always turned slowly, as does Mercury. Thus, it most likely has always been too hot for water to collect on its surface. Life theoretically could arise in water droplets in the atmosphere, but even Venus’ air is dry.

      That said, I’m more optimistic about life elsewhere in the universe, our galaxy and even the solar system. IMO, microbial life is inevitable wherever conditions permit it, with a solvent, energy source and requisite chemical elements. Multicellular life however is probably rare. Eukaryotes evolved just once on Earth, and multicellular eukaryotes only three times, unless you consider the various paraphyletic slime molds as multicellular, thanks to their reproductive structures.

      • I once believed as you until I read the following. Now I’m not so sure. Seems like the most inhospitable area on earth for life would be more suitable than virtually the rest of the universe.

        “ The Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility sits within the South Pacific Gyre, a massive ocean current that keeps nutrient-rich water from entering the area, and it’s too remote for organic material from land to reach it, so it’s a desert with much of the seafloor below devoid of all life, including microbes. It’s 2,100 miles away from the Chilean coast, and 1,670 miles away from the nearest inhabited island.”

        • The area isn’t lifeless:

          Point Nemo is near the southern end of the East Pacific Rise, a submarine line of volcanic activity that stretches up to the Gulf of California. It marks the boundary of the Pacific and Nazca tectonic plates, which are gradually moving apart. Magma wells up in the gap between the plates, creating hydrothermal vents that blast out hot water and minerals.

          It is an extreme environment, but bacteria thrive here, gaining their energy from chemicals released by the eruptions. In turn, the bacteria sustain larger creatures. These include the “yeti crab”, which was first observed in 2005 and named for its hairy appearance.

  11. Is this just about astronomers looking for funding?

    There’s a good chance life might be found on some of those moons which have deep oceans under ice- but life on Venus? Preposterous- but, hey, if it’s true, that’s terrific- life must be almost everywhere.

  12. The presence of phosphine (PH3) gas in the upper atmosphere of Venus does not mean that it came from living organisms. Phosphine is a very reduced (opposite of oxidized) form of phosphorus, with a valence of -3, analogous to the ammonia molecule for nitrogen (phosphorus and nitrogen are in the same column of the periodic table, and have similar chemical properties).

    Most of the phosphorus in living organisms on Earth is in the form of highly oxidized phosphates (PO4, with a -3 charge), where the valence of the phosphorus atom is +5. The DNA molecules in our cells have long chains of alternating deoxyribose (sugar) and phosphate groups, and the molecule used to store and release energy in our cells is adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which releases energy if one phosphate group is broken off to leave adenosine diphosphate (ADP).

    The surface of Venus has a very reducing atmosphere (landers have reported sulfuric acid rain), which would tend to reduce and break down any mineral phosphates which may be present in the surface rock into phosphine. The surface of Venus is too hot for the existence of liquid water (above its critical temperature), and the harsh reducing atmosphere and lack of oxygen would not allow the formation of phosphates necessary for life. Phosphine gas is also toxic to life on earth if inhaled.

    Phosphine has a very low boiling temperature (colder than Antarctica in winter), so that it would not exist naturally as a solid or liquid on Earth’s surface, and is not present in measurable quantities in Earth’s atmosphere, even though phosphorus-containing life is abundant on Earth. Why would the presence of phosphine in the upper atmosphere of Venus be a sign of life, if it is not present in Earth’s atmosphere?

    The phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere is likely the result of the reduction of phosphorus-containing minerals at the surface of Venus by its acid atmosphere, and does not constitute any proof or suspicion of life on Venus, since life on Earth requires phosphorus in its highly oxidized (phosphate) form, which requires an oxidizing atmosphere like that on Earth.

  13. Images of Venus without the cloud cover are much more interesting: Photos of the planets have been largely the same for decades, esp. the outer planets, while Hubble gets shots far beyond our solar system. The Moon and Mars could be Nevada for all we know and shots of Jupiter are either too close or too distant. Maybe our solar system is being obscured just like our ancient history? Isn’t it reasonable to consider we’re being deceived [for ‘national security’] and naive to rule it out? What proof is there we’re not?

  14. Notice to the moderators:

    On this article page under “recent posts” there is a list of at least eight recent posts that do *not* appear on the WUWT mainpage. I have noticed this has been the case for at least the last few days.

  15. “We’re not saying it’s aliens,” says astronomer Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in Wales. “But it’s aliens.”

    FTFY with a nod to Mr Tsoukalos

  16. Proposed mission to explore Venus:

    A mother ship balloon floating above the clouds, in the cooler part of the atmosphere, powered by solar panels, dangles a probe ten or 20 miles below it, with a clear view of the ground from under the clouds. The air closer to the surfact is still hot, but not so bad as the surface. When the probe gets too hot, it can be reeled up to cool off.

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